Education Montana Politics

Of Wolves and the Common Core

This evening at the Helena School Boarding meeting, in a discussion about the adoption of English Language Arts curriculum, a local frequent critic of the Common Core and all things rational urged the Board to vote no, raising the dangerous specter of young people thinking for themselves, developing their own opinions, and questioning the wisdom of those older than themselves. 1

Among the most perplexing criticisms of the Common Core State Standards is the idea that children are too young to learn critical thinking skills or that it’s too dangerous to teach them to read texts critically. Given their entirely unwarranted fears about “government schools” indoctrinating our children to become mindless socialists bent on destroying “American traditional values” and our constitution, not to mention global capitalism, it seems astonishing that conservative critics of the Common Core seem bent on criticizing a tool by which students can criticize government, business, and all the other powerful institutions that seem at times to dominate our lives.

These critics simply can’t have it both ways: we can’t both hope to have informed citizens capable of offering criticism of a federal government that, at times, overreaches, and schools that refuse to teach our foundational documents, principles, promises, and and shortcomings with a critical eye. My students, armed with critical eyes, would surely note that critics of the Common Core seek to undermine the very tools students will need to criticize programs like it in the future.

A detail that I mentioned to the Board this evening was a brief anecdote about my Debate class. An entirely unique course, it offers students from the age of 14-19 (on occasion) a space to research, debate, and discuss issues ranging from nuclear proliferation in India to wolf habitat in Montana. In the course of those debates, I’ve been astonished by the depth of knowledge students demonstrate and their ability to critically evaluate evidence. To those who suggest students are incapable of incisive, constructive, and original thought, a visit to my classroom is in order. You’re more likely to see an excellent debate there than among adults who run to be our leaders—and I categorically reject the idea that students aren’t capable of having these discussions.

In some ways, I am a traditionalist. I often describe my classroom as a Socratic seminar with a fancy web site. I think students need to learn foundational texts, classical and modern history, and the ancient philosophical precepts that still shape the modern world. I teach as much of that content as I can, because I believe learning about them is invaluable.

Content does matter—but so does teaching students that content must come with a critical eye, not blind acceptance, and that real intelligence, as Socrates noted, comes not from the answer, but the question. If we really want our students to understand, appreciate, and yes, even love, our foundational documents, we must provide them a forum in which they discuss them, not a lecture hall in which they receive them.

To imagine that students will absorb rote knowledge for thirteen years and emerge as critical thinkers capable of understanding and transforming their world is misguided at best, dangerous at worst. If you want to make our teachers agents of propaganda, the best way to do it is to mandate that they present a singular view of texts rather than encouraging wide-ranging discussion about them.

One of the texts I love teaching my students is Letters from an American Farmer by J. Hector St. John Crevecoeur. Crevecoeur, a naturalized American citizen, knew in 1775 that what separated the emerging values of the US was a commitment to rethinking old truths and articulating new ideas. He wrote:

The American is a new man, who acts upon new principles; he must therefore entertain new ideas, and form new opinions.

Sounds like an excellent description (sexist language aside) of a great classroom to me.

Post cross-posted at my education blog, Measured With Coffee Spoons.

  1. I even got a shoutout for being a local blogger and English teacher who has the temerity to have written in a private blog post, that evaluating the Bill of Rights would make an interesting assignment.
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  • Those who fear teaching critical thinking to students usually, in my experience, fear that learning how to think critically will lead to students’ questioning their parents’ religious beliefs, and/or the existence of a supreme being.

  • I went to Helena High and even managed to graduate. I didn’t think they were that bad, but I wasn’t stupid enough to let them do all the work. Public schools in this country are a joke.

    Thank God I spent most of my time in the public library educating myself. I knew back then that letting the school system do that for me was a mistake. I wish I wouldn’t have listened to all those smart teachers tell me to go to university, however. What a waste of money!

    I’m still paying off that joke of an education, and once again I should have just gone to the library. I envy those without college educations and the extra money in their pocket. Mine hasn’t done much for me. It’s just another example of those in power or those in charge and the advice they give – it’s often not very good, and if you look real hard, you’ll find the positions they’re in aren’t enviable at all.

    • If I were your teacher, I’d suggest that generalizing about the state of American education from your experience might be a mistake. Knowing some of the teachers who were at HHS during the time I guess you were, you certainly had the opportunity to get some excellent, free education there.

  • By the way, I was watching Governor Mary Fallin, R-Oklahoma, promoting Common
    Core and she stressed it wasn’t a federal mandate, but a standard states could adopt
    on their own. Meanwhile, teabag loons testified angrily that common core was
    all part of new world order and federal mandate, and black helicopters are coming!

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Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

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